Griechenland – Inseln

On Sunday I booked myself a small treat – an all-day, island hopping cruise! I decided that while Athens has a ton to see, it was important that I mix things up and get to see a bit more that the country had to offer. I was scheduled to be picked up near my hostel around 7:00. In a stereotypical southern-European fashion, my ride to the dock lazily rolled up around 7:20. We got to the boat early enough to be among the first groups aboard, which proved to be beneficial as the boat got impressively full.

3 decks were open to passengers, so I hurried up to the top deck and grabbed a seat right by the edge towards the back. Our first destination was Hydra, the farthest island we would be visiting. We had a long cruise out which I spent relaxing, applying sunscreen, sleeping, relaxing, and snapping a few lazy pictures. It was a lazy way to start the day which was a welcome respite from the hustle-and-bustle pace I’d been putting myself through in Athens. I met a guy who was escorting an Asian family on a guided excursion through Greece, Croatia, and Serbia. I told him about my plans with Chelsea in Croatia and Slovenia and he confirmed that we’d have a great time.

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Our first view of land
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The port at Hydra

The tour company was of course trying to sell all sorts of overpriced drinks, food, and trip excursions on each island. I wasn’t having any of it though – I had brought plenty of water with me, and was just looking to take it all in at my own pace. After a few hours at sea, we pulled into the port at Hydra. The town itself was quite charming in that it doesn’t allow motorized vehicular traffic. Locals walk everywhere, use bikes, or have donkeys when they need to carry a lot of cargo. It felt odd being in a (relatively) densely populated area without hearing any traffic noises whatsoever. Cute whitewash framed the town beautifully, and similar to my experience on Friday I let myself get lost in the narrow winding alleys. I wanted to make my way up to a good viewpoint but was turned around when a kindly old woman told me that I actually was trespassing this time.

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Lemon trees!

I wasn’t too upset by this though and quickly shifted my plans. I had heard of a cool monastery near the water and so turned around and headed back downhill to find it. I caught the paid tour group just as they were going inside. The entry was free so I just didn’t wait up for the tour guide and explored the interior on my own.

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Inside the monastery

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Interior lighting

I had some time to kill after I had wandered through the monastery, so I circled around the harbor and made my way down some scraggly rocks to get close to the water. I went off the beaten path a bit and carved my own little private slice of paradise. Crystal-clear blue waters, calm seas, and a small little island sanctuary to take refuge on. Not a bad Sunday afternoon activity. Before long it was time to disembark, so I packed up and made my way back to the ship to snag my good spot again.

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Crystal waters
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My little slice of island heaven

The second cruise ride was much shorter and after what felt like just a few minutes we pulled in at the small island of Poros. Here there was no planned activity and we had only a short time to visit. The tour company recommended that everyone try to make their way up to the clock tower overlooking most of the island. I wanted the view but didn’t care to fight the crowds, so as soon as we docked I ran up to the tower as fast as I could manage. I had a few precious minutes up there before it got swamped with the rest of my boat; by the time the crowd was getting really thick I had had enough of the view and left to go find a few other spots in the town. We didn’t stay in Poros long; after I boarded it was time for my included lunch. I was seated with an Indian family of 4 as well as a professor from Kentucky. By chance the professor had visited a university in India where one of the girls was hoping to be accepted. We had a nice conversation discussing our backgrounds, travel plans, and cultural differences. They had spent some time in Budapest so I asked a bit about that, as I had plans to go there next weekend. I had some fish and pasta for lunch, capped off with a rich and sweet Baklava.

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View from the cruise deck
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Poros
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The tower at Poros
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View from the tower
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Our ship is the one on the left
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The town at Poros

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We spent the whole leg of the cruise just chatting inside. Eventually we arrived at the last island, Aegina. Here there was a bit of a bigger city for me to wander through with cars and lots of scooters. I didn’t have much of an itinerary so I just got lost in the streets, wandering first through the clear tourist area right near the port and then exploring further past where they stopped. In town I found a small Greek Orthodox church and stepped inside to check out the interior. By now I was pretty good at picking out the telltale signs. Afterwards, I headed for the sandy beach to lay out and catch a little sun. I spent the rest of my time in Aegina on the boardwalk and the beach just people-watching and hanging out.

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The big church on Aegina

We cruised back to Athens around sunset, and were bused back to our respective lodging. I didn’t do anything else that night, capping off my relaxation day with a little planning for Monday and another early night.

On my last day in Athens I had a flight in the early evening, but I still had a fair bit I wanted to see in town so I got off to another early start. My first destination was the Academy of Athens. A more modern take on a classical style of architecture, I saw this building when we drove by in the bus the previous evening and decided to come see it in person. This was a short stop for me as I didn’t see any way to go inside for visitors, so I just checked out the exterior and moved on.

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I wasn’t too far from Syntagma square, so I headed back there to dip into the National gardens. There was a demonstration going on in the square – I’m not sure what it was for but I did notice the anti-NATO banners among the others.

The gardens were much more peaceful, probably because it was a Monday morning. The area was largely empty save for a few runners and the occasional local walking their dog. I saw a couple of fountains, some nice shady spots, and a small pond. There were a couple of tiny ruins roped off in the park, it was cool to see how well integrated all the history in Athens is with modern day life. Seeing tiny columns and pillars strewn throughout the winding trails in the park was a particularly striking example of this.

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Peace in the gardens

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After I had my morning stroll through the gardens I made my way back across town near the acropolis entrance. I was bound for the Hill of the Muses to check out the cave where Socrates was supposedly held prisoner for corrupting the youth. The cave itself wasn’t that noteworthy in appearance but the thought that the great philosopher spent his days here was enough to foster a bit of reverence. The real highlight of the hill was the view from the top, however. Climbing up I was treated to more awesome views of the Parthenon and Acropolis structures as well as more of the surrounding city-scape. I walked around the hilltop and just tried to appreciate the sprawling capital city of the Greeks from that vantage point.

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Socrates’ prison
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The path upwards
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View from the hillside
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My last glance of the acropolis

After my hilltop climb I ambled down towards Monastiraki square where I had lunch before departing Athens. My journey home took a little longer than anticipated because there was a workers’ strike, rendering the metro unusable. Additionally, the place I went to catch the airport shuttle bus was closed due to the strike, so I had to make my way to a different shuttle stop to finally reach the airport. I didn’t mind too much though as I leave myself plenty of buffer time in my travel plans when I am alone for this very reason.

I was glad I devoted so many days to seeing Greece and all the history therein. I know I’ll need to come back, but I felt I did the ancients justice in checking out the main attractions Athens has to offer. I just found out I will be meeting up with my brother in Rome and Pompeii in mid-June, and the Athens trip has me super excited to check out more ancient sites. I have a lot more to see between now and then, however. You’ll have to check back later to see what I’ve been up to!

As always, best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Griechenland – Athen

You may think I spent my long-weekend staring at dusty old ruins, battling heat and crowds of tourists to look at what amounts to piles of stones in a dusty field. You wouldn’t be wrong, but I would add that I was immersed in the foundations of western society and democracy as we know it. With a work holiday on Monday, I took advantage of the long weekend to make my way to Greece.

I had a relatively easy travel experience to get there – a flight after work from Stuttgart to Frankfurt, then a flight from Frankfurt to Athens. Unfortunately, Greece is far away and in a different timezone than Germany, so I didn’t land there until around 1AM. It was an experience to get to my hostel near the city center; while there is a metro line to take you into town from the airport, it doesn’t run late at night. The airport is not close to the city, so a taxi fare was around 50$. I wasn’t super-excited about that price so I opted for the bus instead. It took only 6$ but moved pretty slowly with frequent stops. It took around 90 minutes to reach my lodging.

I say “reach my lodging” as if I arrived there. Oh no, instead I misread the bus map and ended up about 30 minutes (by foot) from my hostel. Consequently I found myself walking alone at 3AM through residential areas in Athens. Fortunately I arrived safely at the hostel without incident and was able to sleep around 3:30 or 4:00. This sounds pretty bad, but I knew it would take me a while to get there from the airport and I had slept on the long flight to account for this. When I woke up at 9AM I felt pretty refreshed and ready to start a full day of sightseeing.

With a long list of sights I skipped breakfast and set out for my first stop, the National Archaeological Museum. Here there were golden burial artifacts, weapons, pottery, and much more available on display. They had pieces of the famous “ancient computer,” as well as lots of statues both large and small. I followed an audio-tour which took me through the artistic and cultural progression of ancient Greece. The tour showcased how the artistic skills of the Greeks progressed over time. For example, sculpture transitioned from simple and stiff-looking figures to masterful depictions of realistic elegant human forms through the centuries. I chose to go to the museum first because it was near my hostel, but it proved to be the perfect warm-up for sights to come. Primed with a little historical knowledge I believe I got a lot more out of seeing other places.

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The National Archaeological Museum

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Athena, the warrior goddess, patron of the city
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He looks like you!

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After the museum I headed for Syntagma Square. The name roughly translates to “Constitution Square” as it was here that protesters demanded a democracy from a monarch following a long occupation by the Ottomans. Here, guards tricked out with ornate uniforms guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier right in front of the Parliament building, which had formerly been the King’s palace. They have a strange method of marching which I’m sure has some historical significance I’m not aware of.

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The square itself wasn’t terribly interesting but afforded some good people-watching opportunities. A fountain dominated the center of the space with shady trees and benches offering respite from the hot sun. I took a minute to slather on some sunscreen and continued on my way.

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From the square I walked downhill on Ermou street, a well-known and busy shopping street which was buzzing with activity. My appetite had woken up by now so I grabbed some cheap bread from a street vendor which was pretty tasty.

About halfway down Ermou leading away from Syntagma, a small Byzantine church sits squarely in the middle of the street. It looks bizarrely out of place there, a lonely relic of a former time amid modern shops, restaurants, and busy Athenians. The small house of worship was the first of several Greek Orthodox churches I would see in Greece. The exterior is notably different in that the center of the church is capped with a round dome, and rather than having a western-style cross as a floor layout, the church floor made up a equal-sided cross. The gloomy interior was decorated with rich golden and silver icons depicting various saints. A simple divider separates the Eucharist from worshipers, and small candle votives in the back allowed the faithful to offer prayers. It was a welcome break from the hot and busy street though I didn’t linger too long.

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After getting my first taste of a Greek Orthodox church, I went on to find a much larger one. The main cathedral in Athens was in many ways similar to the small one I had found previously; it formed an equal-sided cross, topped with a dome, and had even richer iconography and decorations. An elaborate candelabra hung over the center, and luxurious tapestries lined the walls. However, considering this was the most important church in Greek Orthodoxy, it was comparatively unimpressive (when considered against churches of similar importance in western Europe). However I kind of liked the touch of modesty, it proved to be a nice contrast to grand Gothic cathedrals.

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My path away from the cathedral took me along shops aimed at Orthodox priests. Golden icons, black vestments, and all sorts of art lined the windows, making for impressive displays. I didn’t dip into any of these because I had a specific destination in mind: Hadrianopolis.

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Hadrian was a Roman emperor with a bit of an obsession with Greek culture. When the Romans controlled Athens under his rule, he devoted resources from the empire to the construction of new settlements and grand monuments. Hadrianopolis was his planned settlement; while it was never completed, some of the monuments from that era are still there. Hadrian’s arch marked the entryway to the community with a tall narrow gate. The most impressive landmark nearby was definitely the Temple of Olympian Zeus. This monolithic temple is now just a ruin, but the remaining columns give testament to the impressive scale of the monument. I believe it may be the biggest ancient temple ever constructed in Greece. The pillars dwarfed the tourists among the remnants. Seeing the temple excited me for what was to come- temples with more structure intact.

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By this point I was following another audio tour. The guided walk took me up to the foothills surrounding the acropolis, though my visit to the hilltop would come later. A small charming little collection of houses dotted the hillside. Apparently this community was a tightly-knit group which had moved from one of the nearby islands. They recreated their island home right on the hill, forming a dense maze of white-washed buildings with cute blue accents. I wandered through narrow alleys and was quite certain I was considered trespassing, but I think the alleyways are normal pedestrian routes.

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I finished up with the audio tour and found myself at Athens’ second main square, Monastiraki. I took a chance to try Greek street food for the first time and got a delicious chicken souvlaki (a pita wrap with chicken, salad, and french fries) for only 2EUR. What a lunch! For some dessert I stopped by the fruit stands in the square and had some fresh strawberries.

I had plans to meet up with another trainee around mid-afternoon. I coordinated with them and found out they were staying pretty close to where I was at the time, so I decided to go to their hotel and wait for them there. Unfortunately they were heavily delayed due to bad traffic and so I ended up leaving before I met them, as I wanted to get up to the acropolis with enough time to see everything before it closed at 8PM.

Backtracking a bit, I found the acropolis entrance and scored a student discount. I think I had to be a EU student to qualify, but fortunately the woman working at the entrance confused the state of Georgia in “Georgia Tech” for the country of Georgia, so I was good to go. Excited, I began my climb up the hill. My first stop was an old theater which still gets used for concerts and plays. Circular marble seating defines the stereotypical ancient theater, but it was still cool to see in person. I liked the fact that the site was still actively in use too.

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The ancient entryway to the acropolis is comprised of a large colonnade forming a big gate sitting above imposing stairs. Flanking either side of the gate are more monuments and temples. To the left you see a big pillar which held various statues and monuments over the centuries depending on who was in power. On the right, the Temple of Athena Nike commemorates Athena’s triumph in battle as a warrior goddess. It is a grand entrance for a fittingly important locale. In ancient times, the acropolis hill was the culmination of a large parade held annually to celebrate Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Thousands would march up the hill to present a massive statue in the Parthenon with a new garment.

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The temple of Athena Nike

Passing through the gate, I found myself face-to-face with arguably the most significant architectural work ever, the Parthenon. The building itself demonstrates mastery of proportions and illusion. For example, the Athenians knew that straight lines appear to curve at the corners and built-in a slight curve to account for this. To ensure the columns all appear aligned, they bow slightly at the middle and point ever-so-slightly outward to counteract the perspective of the viewer. The roof is a classic example of the “golden ratio”, and while most of the decorative pieces have been stripped off to be put up in museums, seeing the building in person was definitely a cool experience.

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The Parthenon has been under renovations for some time now..

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I had told my friend to meet me here, anticipating I would stay around until closing. I had no problem occupying my time as the acropolis has even more than just the Parthenon to see. The hilltop offers a commanding view of the city below, and the Parthenon isn’t even the only significant building at the top. A nearby temple is known for its large porch supported by columns decorated as women. I met him and his travel buddies and we spent some time lounging, discussing the history, and taking it all in. The acropolis was crowded but I can imagine it being much worse later on in the summer.

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We stayed until the employees asked us to leave. Afterwards, we followed the crowds and summitted nearby Mars Hill to catch the sunset. The rocky hilltop overlooks the Athenian Agora, a preserved expanse of ruins and green space which served as a market square and town center in ancient times. The sun was setting over the mountain range to the west, bathing everything in swathes of colorful twilight. We sat and enjoyed the scenery and got to experience a little people-watching as well.

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Sadly I didn’t know this couple, but they looked good!

After we had our fill, I joined the guys for a drink and dinner back near their hotel. Their place had a rooftop bar with a nice view of the acropolis, which gets lit up at night:

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We talked with some locals and had a good time. I had some stewed lamb for dinner which was pretty good. The guys had me try local liquor with them; I forget the exact name but I was informed it roughly translated to “milk of the gods”. It tasted like black licorice, which I don’t care for, but had the interesting and unusual property of getting cloudy when exposed to low temperatures. I was poured a glass of clear liquid and watched as it grew foggy when ice was dropped in. Strange stuff, but I still didn’t like the taste. It was worth trying, however.

Exhausted from a long day, I said goodbye to the guys (who were bound for an island early the next day) and made my way back to the hostel on foot, where I promptly fell asleep.

The next morning I was up and ready for more sightseeing. With a long list of places to visit I wasted no time and headed straight for the Agora I had seen yesterday evening. (When I bought my ticket to the acropolis I went ahead and purchased a combination ticket for many of the ancient sights. This not only saved me money but also helped me plan out my time in Athens.) Arriving at the Agora, I walked through the old ruins and learned about the area. Long colonnades formed covered shopping areas, similar to modern malls. Bare spots of stone lay where important government buildings once stood. Sadly, the area was pillaged by invaders around the time the Roman empire fell. Without adequate protection from Rome, the Greeks hobbled an improvised wall together using whatever stone and marble they could find.

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The Agora from above

The Agora also hosts a small museum in a reconstructed building. The highlight of the visit for me was the ancient voting artifacts on display. Clay tablets and ancient ballot systems showed the literal birth of democracy as we know it today. Many of the important votes concerning Athenian foreign and domestic policy took place right at the Agora. It was impressive to see in person.

Atop a small hill in the Agora sits a largely-intact temple of worship, the Temple of Hephaestus. Having come from the Parthenon yesterday it was interesting to note the similarities and differences, and seeing the roof as a unified structure naturally sent my imagination running to fill in the destroyed gaps at the more famous temple. I snapped some pictures and then left the area.

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The Temple of Hephaestus

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I was near Monastiraki square around lunchtime, so naturally I had more street food. After a quick snack break I entered nearby Hadrian’s Library, a Roman ruin comprised of columns and wall remnants from an old academic complex. As you can probably surmise from the name, the building was contemporary with Hadrianopolis and other Roman sites around the city. I didn’t stick around  for long as this was a smaller ruin, but unlike some of the other sites, getting up close to inspect the remnants was permissible.

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The last standing wall at Hadrian’s library

After the library, I wanted to check out the Acropolis museum. My route took me right by the Roman Agora so I made a pit-stop of it and checked out another bunch of ruins up-close. The Acropolis museum contains the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon (the ones not stolen by the 19th century British), artifacts from the hill, and several other famous pieces, including the originals of the woman-columns I described before. (The ones in place at the temple are cast replicas so as to prevent wear to the originals.) The top floor matches the size and orientation of the Parthenon itself and contains lots of the carved plates which framed the roof of the original building. These carvings tell stories of heroes, gods and goddesses and also glorify the common people of Greece. Seeing the originals was awesome.

Exiting the museum I found I had escaped the worst of the heat of the day. I made my way over to the Panathenaic Stadium, site of the first modern Olympic games in 1896. The construction is really impressive as the massive seating venue is made entirely of marble. There was an audio-guide but after the first few stations I decided it was a bit cheesy and didn’t use it much. However entering the stadium itself was well worth it, as there were some awesome views to be had. The site itself was the location where the Ancient games which formed the modern Olympics were held; the building links the ancient and modern world in a way you can’t find anywhere else.

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That’s a lot of marble..

In the late afternoon I left the stadium and walked a long way up to the little church I had seen on the hilltop yesterday. Given the height I didn’t have much trouble with the climb as there were a series of paved paths sloping upwards which made the whole thing pretty manageable. My plan had been to catch sunset up there, but I mis-timed things slightly and found myself up there around 5 or 6 o’clock. With the sun not beginning to set until after 8, I didn’t feel like waiting. In retrospect the spot would be better for sunrise anyway, because the primary viewpoint (overlooking the acropolis and old city) faces westward, meaning the setting sun was actually quite harsh. Still I enjoyed the views and I’d say the hike was well worth it.

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A view of the viewpoint
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Acropolis hill
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Athens sprawls out below

After hanging around for some time I came back down and started heading for my hostel. On the way I grabbed dinner- I had grilled fish which had not been de-boned. I was careful but I think I ended up eating a few of the tiny rib bones, whoops. I went back to the hostel and had a quiet night as I knew I had an early wake-up ahead of me the next day.

I’ll leave you here for now. I had four full days in Greece and the end of day two marked the midpoint of my visit. Next time, you’ll hear about what I was up to for the second half of my Greek adventure. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben